The gunman fired at the four firefighters when they arrived shortly after 5:30 a.m. at the blaze in Webster, a suburb of Rochester on Lake Ontario, town Police Chief Gerald Pickering said. The first police officer who arrived chased the suspect and exchanged gunfire, authorities said.
Police say he lay in wait outdoors for the firefighters' arrival, then opened fire probably with a rifle and from atop an earthen berm, Pickering said.
"It does appear it was a trap," he said.
The gunman, William Spengler, had served more than 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer in 1980 at the house next to where Monday's attack happened, Pickering said at afternoon news conference. Spengler, 62, was paroled in 1998 and had led a quiet life since, authorities said. Convicted felons are not allowed to possess weapons.
Two firefighters, one of whom was also a town police lieutenant, died at the scene, and two others were hospitalized. A fifth man who was passing by was also injured. The police officer who exchanged gunfire with Spengler and "in all likelihood saved many lives," Pickering said.
Seven houses were destroyed, Pickering said, and police have not been able to get inside to determine if there are any more victims. They said Spengler's 67-year-old sister Cheryl Spengler was unaccounted for. He lived in the house with his sister and mother, Arline, who died in October.
Spengler had originally been charged with second-degree murder in connection with grandmother Rose Spengler's death. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter.
The West Webster Fire District learned of the fire early Monday after a report of a car and house on fire on Lake Road, on a narrow peninsula where Irondequoit Bay meets Lake Ontario, Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn said.
The fire appeared from a distance as a pulsating ball of flame glowing against the early morning sky, flames licking into treetops and reflecting on the water, with huge bursts of smoke billowing away in a brisk wind.
Two of the firefighters arrived on a fire engine and two in their own vehicles, Pickering said. After Spengler fired, one of the wounded men managed to flee, but the other three couldn't because of flying gunfire.
A police armored vehicle was used to recover two of the men, and eventually it evacuated 33 people from nearby homes, the police chief said. The gunfire initially kept firefighters from battling the blazes.
"These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires; they don't expect to be shot and killed," Pickering said.
The dead men were identified as Police Lt. Michael Chiapperini, 43, the Webster Police Department's public information officer; and Tomasz Kaczowka, also a 911 dispatcher, whose age was not released.
Pickering described Chiapperini as a "lifetime firefighter" with nearly 20 years with the department, and called Kaczowka a "tremendous young man."
The two wounded firefighters, Joseph Hofsetter and Theodore Scardino, were in guarded condition in the intensive care unit at Strong Memorial Hospital, authorities said. Both were awake and alert and are expected to recover.
Hofsetter, also a full-timer with the Rochester Fire Department, was hit once in the pelvis, and the bullet lodged in his spine, authorities said. Scardino was hit in the chest and knee.
Monday's shooting and fires were in a neighborhood of seasonal and year-round homes set close together across the road from the lakeshore. The area is popular with recreational boaters but is normally quiet this time of year.
"We have very few calls for service in that location," Pickering said. "Webster is a tremendous community. We are a safe community, and to have a tragedy befall us like this is just horrendous."
O'Flynn lamented the violence, which comes on the heels of other shootings including the massacre of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"It's sad to see that that this is becoming more commonplace in communities across the nation," O'Flynn said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the State Police and Office of Emergency Management were working with local authorities.
"Volunteer firefighters and police officers were injured and two were taken from us as they once again answered the call of duty," Cuomo said in a statement. "We as the community of New York mourn their loss as now two more families must spend the holidays without their loved ones."
Webster, a middle-class suburb, now is the scene of violence linked to house fires for two Decembers in a row.
Last Dec. 7, authorities say, a 15-year-old boy doused his home with gasoline and set it ablaze, killing his father and two brothers, 16 and 12. His mother and 13-year-old sister escaped with injuries. He is being prosecuted as an adult.
Associated Press writers Chris Carola, George Walsh and Mary Esch in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.